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Beauty Will Save the World—But How? Part II: History

May 25, 2021


We pick up from last week’s discussion on how we understand beauty, featuring Denis McNamara, the director of Benedictine College’s Center for Beauty and Culture. In Part I, McNamara noted that what is beautiful must contain the essential elements of wholeness, proportionality, and the capacity to reveal itself. His conversation with Robert Mixa, the Word on Fire Institute’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Fellow for Catholic Education, now turns to the historical perspective on beauty.

Robert Mixa: The definition of beauty that we’ve established makes sense, but it is very different than the popular conception of beauty today. Very often, you hear people say, “Beauty is just the sublime”; or, “Beauty is undefinable”; or, “Beauty is just in the eye of the beholder.” Protagoras had a rather relativistic definition of beauty. And you see this still having influence today. 

I know this is a huge question, but how did we get to where we are today, say, from Aquinas’ realist definition of beauty to a definition of beauty as merely subjective experience? Italian philosopher Umberto Eco had a narrative, but what’s yours? 

Dr. Denis McNamara: Well, there’s a long history to the understanding of beauty. This understanding that I’m talking about here is called the realist tradition, which claims that things have a reality or nature whether or not someone is perceiving them. It wasn’t invented by Aquinas, but he took the inherited tradition out of Aristotle, which trusted the materiality of things. So if you’re a Platonist and you think the perfect version of a thing resides primarily in the realm of idea—what we call the Platonic form—you don’t trust matter to reveal that idea fully, because the earthly object is already an inferior “copy,” so to speak. In the Aristotelian worldview, humans trust matter to reveal beautiful things, just like God took the dust of the earth and made Adam or Christ took on matter in the Incarnation. And we also trust matter to reveal God’s glory, since Christ’s body became radiant with heavenly light at the Transfiguration. This is a high theology of creation, which is deeply biblical.

So the making of beautiful things is considered a share in God’s own creative power. And it’s the artist’s job and, more properly, the artist’s vocation, to see beyond the fallen world and understand the fullness of things as the mind of God understands them. And through reason, revelation, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he or she has access to the perfection of ideas as they are in the mind of God. Then, through diligent practice in learning their craft, an artist can actually render those invisible ideas present in the world through matter. An icon of a saint or angel isn’t simply a reminder that saints exist in heaven. Rather, they render present something of the saint’s pre-existing reality to us here on earth.

And so, the objective reality pre-exists us. Then the artist makes that objective reality knowable to others after discovering it, rather than inventing it. This is where true masterpieces come from. They are not masterpieces simply because the artistic intelligentsia has decided it, but because the artists have been able to intuit what God wants the world to know and then render it present in a revelatory way. So part of great art is mastery of the artistic medium, and that’s where learning and practice come in. But the more important part is revelation of the knowledge that the artistic skill makes knowable to the senses.

This is where the Holy Spirit and human artistic talent work together. You can’t play a great Mozart piece on the piano unless you have mastered the technical skill necessary to play it. But you can’t play it unless Mozart knew how to compose it. And Mozart couldn’t compose it unless there was a pre-existing idea of harmony, melody, and so on. So Mozart received an inspiration—he discovered a melody that preexisted him. And then later, people had subjective responses to this revelation of an objective reality.

But in many ways, modernity flipped that around and said, “Well, we can’t really know ontology. That’s in the mind of God; we don’t have access to that. All I know is that when I have a subjective experience that causes me to cry or perceive something vaguely mysterious beyond me, that’s what I call beauty.” And so beauty became redefined as something that causes a personal, emotional response. Subsequently, subjective personal expression became the dominant mark of artistic genius, rather than revelation.

And so what we’ve done in the modern world is make a person’s particular experience dominant. And that’s pretty dangerous, because it can lead to relativism right away. Since your emotional experience is as good as mine, there is no way to evaluate and distinguish the actual object involved outside of someone’s personal response. You often hear artists say about their work something like “if only one person is moved by it, then I know it was a success.” They should say, “If the greatest number of people experience a delightful revelation of the mind and love of God and are made holier and happier by encountering it, then it was a success.”

But people still question their own subjective perceptions. For example, someone might say the leaf strikes me as green, but I’m not even sure about that anymore. Appearances no longer matter as disclosing reality. There’s an arbitrary realm behind the appearances, and that is where the real lies. This is dangerous in so many ways.  

Right, because the trust in sense experience has been diminished in recent decades. But we know for sure what we feel, and traditionally, feelings are considered less trustworthy than the intellect in the Christian worldview. Plato famously compared feelings to a team of wild horses. It takes the person driving the chariot—that is, the intellect—to keep the horses focused. And we all have feelings that come from anger that we shouldn’t follow, for instance. And the intellect has to govern those feelings.

So when subjective feelings are given primacy, beauty becomes about the subject’s individual perception, and it can become unhinged from any objective reality. Aquinas recognized that a person’s subjective response is a real and important thing. In fact, he believed that a thing is more beautiful when it’s actually perceived by a subject because it is actually fulfilling its purpose. But the emotional response is from an encounter with an object that has its own reality mediated through the thing itself. He never says that the truth of things as understood in the mind of God is only known through one person’s subjective emotions, or even their intellect.

Any particular person might not know much about the subject at hand or may be in a particularly bad mood. You take a kid through the Louvre, and they think the masterpieces they are seeing are boring. Why? Because the art’s not good? No, because the child hasn’t learned how to look at things yet. It doesn’t change the objective reality of the paintings if the viewer doesn’t appreciate them, just as it doesn’t change the reality of the Eucharist if an atheist doesn’t believe in it. And so the subject and the object always work together, but the objective reality remains primary.

So we have to be formed in order to receive these properly.

Again, a good example would be slavery. Over the years, there have been different theories of slavery. And people would say, “Well, that group of people is not really fully human, so we should be able to enslave them.” Well, that’s actually saying, “My subjective understanding is projected on somebody else,” rather than looking at the objective reality of the nature and dignity of a human being. And once it becomes truly subjective, then it just becomes about who’s the biggest bully on the street rather than recognizing the objective reality of what’s in front of you. Proper formation in understanding the nature of the human person is absolutely necessary to know how to respect human dignity.

That’s a good example. I remember using that example in class when the students were going down a relativistic path, applying it to everything. And they said, “Oh, well, there is no objective definition of anything, and justice just depends on who’s in power.” But the minute I designated somebody as part of a lower class, they all threw up their arms in protest, not upset that they didn’t get to arbitrarily assert their power, but that my designation was not in accordance with reality. 

That’s because you gave a beautiful example. You wanted them to know the truth, and if you just pointed fingers and said “Believe this, or else” they would feel imposed upon.

But you said, “Let me present something to you in a way that’s proportionate to your knowledge and something you’ll find delightful to understand,” and then it became compelling and acceptable to them. So beauty isn’t so much about museums and art critics, although that’s part of it. Beauty is about the truth being presented and known in a way that’s fully proportionate to people and so clear that they can’t help but say, “Oh, I understand it, and now I desire it.” It’s the light bulb moment over your head. It’s when you begin to understand as God understands, and the soul delights.

How elegant! 

[Next week, the discussion will turn to liturgy and music.]